If, like me, you feel obligated to watch every television programme featuring a poncy British guy yammering on about whatever subject it is that he thinks is so delightfully interesting it deserves an hour of your attention, you know that the modern Olympics aren't quite the Olympics as they used to be. In the good ol' days, of course, the chaps ran around naked and killed each other. Ah, good times.
Somewhat similarly, the Eisteddfod dreamed up by Iolo "Forgery is Fun" Morgannwg isn't exactly the same sort of thing that was going on back in the 12th century. It is an opium-induced Edwardian romantic vision of Welsh culture. That's an element that I wish they would play up a little more: "Welcome to Eisteddfod: kooky pseudo-druidism from the mind of a nutjob."
Of course, dreamed-up cultural traditions are perfectly fine with me. Made-up stuff provides the foundation of American culture. Thanksgiving was dreamed up to sell cookbooks. I simply bring it up because romanticism is the thing that struck me most about my second Eisteddfod experience.
For those of you playing along at home, an eisteddfod (roughly pronounced: "ay-STETH-vode") is a cultural event/series of competitions that encompasses pretty much anything you've got time for: singing, literature, dancing, arts, crafts, etc. It's a bit like a county fair, minus the baking competition and those kitschy endearing elements that British filmmakers like to feature when trying to demonstrate that all Americans are slack-jawed yokels. There is no eisteddfod leek-eating contest (and more's the pity for that, I say).
The eisteddfodau (more than one eisteddfod) are based on a tradition of poets strutting their stuff for one another, which took place as late as the 12th century and as early as some time that I failed to note when I had a lecture on Eisteddfod several months ago. These events are held all throughout Wales, all throughout the year and they are generally about as exciting as you would expect a bunch of people gathered in a church hall reading poetry to be. Actually, it's more fun than that, thanks to sock-rocking elements like cerdd dant and côr llefaru.
Cerdd dant is a competition that in its essence involves singing to harp accompaniment. But for wacky fun, every competitor has to sing the same song. Or, at least, the same words. I think they are allowed to make up a different tune if they are so inclined, but to be honest I've never been able to sit through a cerdd dant competition long enough to say one way or the other. Here's a clip of a bloke who won £150 for his performance.
The utterly baffling côr llefaru, meanwhile is something that our man Iolo almost certainly would have seen in his opium fits. Like some kind of low-tech Lydia Lunch spoken word performance*, it involves several people reciting poetry in dramatic unison. You should probably be sitting down to watch this clip (although, it's worth it for the hottie flutist).
Easily the most hilarious competitions, though, are those for dancing. They are funny in a surreal way -- the whole thing of performing what should be life-affirming folk dance on a vast, empty stage before an utterly silent audience. It's like attempting to do Def Comedy Jam on Sunday morning at an old folk's home.
Once a year, there is a national Eisteddfod (note the big "E"), the big-money eisteddfod. This is the thing that all the Welsh Bob Dylan wannabes** sing about. Last week's Eisteddfod events pulled just shy of 155,000 visitors, which is about half of what St. Paul's Grand Old Day pulls in a single day, or 1.5 million people short of Minnesota State Fair attendance. But don't let the numbers fool you; Eisteddfod is televised live across the country and the focus of all conversation for the week before, during and after the actual affair.
Well, the focus of conversation in Welsh-speaking circles, at least. The bus driver who took me from Chester to Mold (where Eisteddfod was held this year) had no idea it was going on.
People attending Eisteddfod are probably happy to have it that way. It plays more into the sense of isolation that Welsh people often seek to create for themselves. And minimal numbers of English speakers assist in the romanticism of the event. It meant that in the instant village that was the caravan park one heard only Welsh. Hundreds of people, across acres of land, yammering away in y Gymraeg. It was Welshie utopia.
FTYPAH: "caravan" here means "camping trailer." Imagine my disappointment when I first figured that out. In all the times I had heard about people going caravanning, I had envisioned them bouncing about the British countryside like Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof."
In that vein, I had bundled my tent along with me to Mold and set up with a few friends on the periphery of the rows of caravans. Camping at festivals is an established British summer tradition -- pitching a tent in the mud and stomping around on two hours' sleep is part of the experience. Or, at least, that is the way that it is portrayed. In fact, what I found was that everyone had a tent that was at least three times the size of mine. Mari had a six-man tent all to herself. Rhodri and Elin's tent was so large and equipped with so many guy wires that it reminded me of the tent used by Hawkeye, Hunnicutt and Winchester in M*A*S*H. I kept asking them when they were going to set up the still (a reference that I think was lost on them).
People came equipped with full-size air mattresses, camping stoves, radios, televisions and countless other amenities. The field itself was equipped with proper working toilets, showers, a chippy (FTYPAH: "burger stand"), a convenience store and a bar. This is what I mean by "instant village;" it wasn't camping at all.
At dusk, smoke from barbecues would lift up against the sunset and hills, and from every corner you could hear the constant patter of Radio Cymru or families and friends all speaking in this ancient language. It reminded me of my first impression of Cymru Gymraeg (Welsh-speaking Wales) more than 10 years ago: that I had somehow stumbled into a different country within a different country. That's the romantic vision, the romantic hope of many Welsh speakers, I suppose. It's the thing that makes Eisteddfod worthwhile, which is also what makes it hard to appreciate.
Welsh-language culture is wrapped almost entirely in the language. It has traditional dance and music, but for whatever reason these elements are seemingly shunned within the culture. Its modern music is awful more often than not, and almost all other modern cultural aspects are indistinguishable from those found in England. This results in a culture that doesn't really have an entry level for appreciation. There is no bodhrán or tartan to Welsh culture.
On the most recent episode of "Mountain," Griff Rhys Jones was talking about a British attempt to wipe out Highland sentiment by killing a load of people. He noted that tartan (FTYPAH: "plaid") was at one time banned and people were cleared off their land and killed, and yet in modern times all these Highlandy things can be found pretty much anywhere on the British islands and they are easily recognized worldwide. He suggested that these things have become more widespread than they ever would have been if the British had simply left the Highlanders alone. He then darkly quipped: "Perhaps if there had been a few massacres in Wales, people would know who we are."
There's a certain truth to that. Whatever the reason, it's difficult for outsiders to really grasp the differentness of Welsh culture. If you are an English speaker or person from outside the British islands, there is little to pique your interest because the language is so tightly woven into the culture -- if you don't know the language, you are not likely to see what's so fucking special about this place.
All of this is at the heart of why I was so disappointed by my first Eisteddfod experience. Last year, when the child bride and I went to Eisteddfod in Swansea, I was hoping for a sort of cultural event/celebration that would in some way vindicate all the time and money and trouble of moving here. I wanted to be able to say to my wife: "Yes, I know that I have failed you as a husband by dragging you on some ridiculous dream, but look at what we get in return."
I had long had difficulty answering the question that I am so often asked -- "Why Welsh?" -- and hoped that Eisteddfod would finally provide that answer.
It didn't. Cripes almighty, it didn't. It was a bunch of rocks and white information booths. A third-rate county fair trying to win legitimacy by mimicking the "Ode to a Grecian Urn" scene in "Music Man"***.
But then this year, I was sitting around a barbecue with friends -- beer in hand, smoke rising into the summer sunset -- and it hit me. It hit me again the next day, when I was chatting with people who were spread out on the grass near a beer stand, listening to the caterwauling of yet another Dylan wannabe. The language stupid.
So often in Welsh-speaking situations there is an element of something -- defiance, academia, back-room dealing -- that runs through the experience. But in Eisteddfod, with everyone speaking the language simply because it is a language and language is how you tell your friends about funny things, the simple act of talking rubbish in the sun feels slightly otherworldly. It's romanticism, of course. In this world there is only one radio station, one TV station, no newspaper and the 1990s have yet to occur musically. But with the language clicking in my brain, I was finally able to see the appeal of Eisteddfod.
I don't like saying this, but I actually enjoyed it.
*Whoa, in the great game of obscurity baseball, I have just knocked one out of the park with that reference.
**For some inexplicable reason, one of the most-respected Welsh-language pop artists is a dude who blatantly stole his style from Bob Dylan ( here's proof). Even more confusing is that there are legions of younger performers who are blatantly stealing their style from him.
***I couldn't find that scene on You Tube, but I did find my favourite scene from the musical. His producing a marshmallow (7:25) is one of the greatest bits of random comedy ever. I also wish that I had had the guts to use "It's alright, I know everything and it doesn't make any difference," as an opening line when meeting a girl.